Castor to pull Al-Arian ad; urges Martinez to pull negative ads

Democrat Betty Castor, accusing her opponent of running “the nastiest campaign in the history of this state,” challenged Republican Mel Martinez on Wednesday to stop airing negative television ads in their bitter U.S. Senate race.

Castor’s campaign said it would pull one showing a photograph of President Bush with suspected terrorist Sami Al-Arian. The ad said the former U.S. Housing secretary “allowed” the former professor to campaign with Bush in 2000.

“I think Mel Martinez is running the nastiest campaign in the history of this state, and I think voters are going to reject it,” Castor said before voting early in Tampa. “There are a lot of issues we can talk about. We don’t have to engage in this terrible, negative campaigning. I challenge him again today: Take down your negative ads. Join with me.”

Martinez campaign spokeswoman Jennifer Coxe called it “empty campaign rhetoric,” saying the ad featuring Al-Arian and Bush was just one of several spots aired by Castor’s campaign that offers a “negative” portrayal of Martinez.

She said outside groups such as EMILY’s List and the campaign arm of the Senate Democrats were spending millions of dollars on ads critical of Martinez. EMILY’s List is a fund-raising organization that seeks to elect Democratic, pro-choice women to office and has ardently supported Castor.

“What she’s saying is disengenuous – she is not going to run a positive campaign,” Coxe said. “There will be $4 million worth of negative ads on TV. She has no control over it.”

During Monday’s debate, the candidates were asked by moderator Tim Russert of NBC’s “Meet the Press” to cease airing negative ads following weeks of testy exchanges over Al-Arian.

Castor said she would remove the spot but only if her opponent agreed. Martinez balked, saying he would not make a strategic decision “under these lights.”

Castor, the former University of South Florida president, said she was issuing the challenge after the National Republican Senatorial Committee released a new spot accusing her of supporting tax increases and mailed out a flier that shows men wearing masks and says: “Betty Castor: Easy on terrorists, putting Florida’s families at risk.”

“This is the same kind of stuff he did against Bill McCollum – it’s despicable,” Castor said, referring to Martinez’s combative primary campaign against the former Orlando area congressman.

Martinez’s campaign issued a mailing and a short-lived ad describing McCollum as a darling of the “radical homosexual lobby” because of his support of hate-crime legislation that covered gays among other groups.

Castor spokesman Dan McLaughlin said their ad showing the Al-Arian photo would stop airing between Friday and Saturday. It had been scheduled to air through the end of the campaign.

McLaughlin said Castor’s pledge would not prohibit her from responding to “false attacks” and the campaign was considering a response ad to the spot aired by the NRSC on taxes. The ad says Castor has worked to raise taxes during her career and labels her “a disaster for Florida’s economy.”

McLaughlin called the spot “totally false,” noting that a service tax increase cited in the ad was championed by Republican Gov. Bob Martinez.

Highlighting the tax issue, Mel Martinez campaigned with former GOP vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp in Naples. Kemp said Castor voted to increase taxes more than twenty times during her career, lobbied for a service tax and proposed raising the state’s sales tax.

“Simply stated Betty Castor is bad for business,” Kemp said.

Associated Press Writer Mitch Stacy contributed to this report from Tampa.